Due to Covid relief, experts brace for a flood of tax-filing extensions

  • Tax professionals anticipate that millions of taxpayers will be applying for extra time to file their taxes this season.
  • The difficulties this year stem from the relief efforts undertaken by Congress to help individuals and businesses affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The IRS may not have extended the deadline for Americans to file their tax returns as they did last year, but chances are millions of taxpayers will be applying for extra time to file their taxes this season.

"There will be more extensions than normal this year, and that's OK as long as people pay their estimated taxes," said Tracy Marrin, a principal and director of tax consulting at financial services and advisory firm Rehmann. "It's better to extend and do the return properly rather than file and have to amend it later."

Potential penalties and interest on taxes owed will begin accruing as of March 15 for corporate taxpayers and April 15 for individuals. Taxpayers can file for a six-month extension up to the filing deadline date.

The complexities this year stem from the relief efforts undertaken by Congress to help individuals and businesses affected by the pandemic. The tax implications of the CARES Act, the Consolidated Appropriations Act signed by former President Trump in late December and President Biden's as-yet-undefined $1.9 trillion relief package proposal are staggeringly complex.

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"It is all very favorable for taxpayers, but it's all very complicated, too," said Adam Markowitz, a CPA in Leesburg, Florida, who expects to prepare roughly 400 personal returns and 100 business returns this year. "We have 8,000 pages of legislation and 5,000 pages of IRS guidance that we have to follow, and I have to ask clients about three times more questions this year than previously."

The complexity is greatest for business owners, particularly those who received forgivable loans through the Payroll Protection Program. Further guidance in the Consolidated Appropriations Act resolved some issues — most notably the ability to deduct expenses covered with a forgiven PPP loan.

However, plenty of unresolved issues remain for business owners, with the solutions highly dependent on each business' unique circumstances.

"There are unknown questions at every turn," Marrin said. "For clients who got a PPP loan in 2020, there's a gray area on how to bifurcate expenses between the loan and the employee retention credit.

"If they haven't applied for loan forgiveness yet, they may want to wait and extend the credit," she added.

Marrin also noted that changes to the tax reporting rules for partnerships will slow filings down.

"We just got the final instructions for the partnership rules and, with all the unknowns remaining, guidance and updates will continue through the year," she said. "That delays everything."

Even for business clients counting on the cash from tax refunds, Marrin recommends other options like taking out a second PPP loan or deferring employment taxes, as opposed to rushing a return by March 15 that will have to be amended.

"Amending returns is a problem," she said. "If you need the cash and have all the information you need to prepare your return, we'll accelerate the filing.

"But it doesn't make sense to file if you can't prepare the return accurately," Marrin added.

The uncertainty over whether and which states will conform to the federal tax rules on relief payments, deductions and credits may also cause more extensions on state returns.

Individuals might have issues, too

Individual tax filers have it only somewhat easier. Markowitz said that anyone in at least one of the following six circumstances "has no business filing a return without speaking to a tax professional":

  1. You made more than $75,000 — $150,000 for couples — in 2019 or 2020, or you will this year.
  2. You had a dependent child who turned 17 in one of the last three years.
  3. You had a baby last year or will this year.
  4. You made more money last year than in 2019.
  5. You received unemployment benefits last year.
  6. You own a business.

While Markowitz is optimistic that 60% to 70% of his individual client returns will ultimately be filed on time, there are plenty of outstanding issues that argue for waiting to file a return. The next proposed stimulus payment of $1,400, for example, may be eligible for all dependent adults in a household.

"If you had fewer dependents to claim in 2020, you may not want to file on time," he said. "If you had more, you want to file to recapture the stimulus payments."

There is also an outside shot that Congress makes unemployment benefits non-taxable. An extension, rather than amending a return later, might make sense if that comes to pass.

What may tip Markowitz into despair this filing season, however, are cryptocurrency tax issues for some of his millennial clients.

"Every time you breathe on a cryptocurrency, a transaction has to be reported, and if it's not reported properly, you'll get busted," said Markowitz. "If I get one more client who has done something with Dogecoin that makes their tax lives more complicated."

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